McConnell closes in on his quest to turn Kentucky red

Mitch McConnell
Mitch McConnell

In November 2014, days after Republicans recaptured control of the U.S. Senate in the midterm elections, Mitch McConnell called Kentucky state Rep. Jonathan Shell to complain.

McConnell had just scored a huge reelection win, and when the 114th Congress gaveled into session, he would fulfill his lifelong goal of becoming majority leader.

But McConnell told Shell that he was unhappy nonetheless, because Kentucky Republicans had failed to recapture control of the state House. It galled the senator that he won a majority of votes in 13 state House districts where no Republican was even on the ballot.

Less than a month later, McConnell convened a meeting of the state House Republican caucus to begin plotting a strategy ahead of the 2016 elections.

He told his fellow Republicans bluntly that they needed a better operation, and he suggested Shell head a campaign committee that had previously been little more than a fundraising vehicle.

The committee, and McConnell, would make a concerted effort to recruit candidates.

Now, two months before Election Day, Kentucky Republicans are fielding a record number of candidates — in 91 of the state’s 100 House districts. In 2015, McConnell himself met with more than 20 of those candidates to convince them to run. And now, Democrats’ tenuous six-seat majority is at risk.

“He’s dealing with [President] Obama; he’s dealing with [Senate Minority Leader] Harry Reid [D-Nev.]; he’s fighting with [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.], but yet he takes the time to meet with state House candidates from Harlan County,” Shell said. “The man that’s on CNN and Fox News and the majority leader of the United States Senate, I still get to talk to on the phone.”

Flipping the state House — the last legislative chamber in the South controlled by Democrats — would represent the end of a long political evolution in Kentucky, one that began with McConnell’s 5,000-vote victory over Democratic Sen. Walter Huddleston in 1984.

Then, McConnell was the first Republican to win statewide office since 1967. What was once a reliably blue state is now one of the most Republican in the country.

At the heart of that evolution is McConnell himself, who began his career in elected office in 1977 as chief executive of Jefferson County, the most populous area of the state.

He recalled that when he ran against Huddleston in 1984, he sat among a small cadre of fellow executives on the Republican side of the stage at Fancy Farm, Kentucky’s raucous annual political gathering. Across the aisle on the Democratic side sat a bevy of congressmen, current and former governors and senators.

“I got tired of being alone,” McConnell said in an interview.

Kentucky Republicans faced a long slog to return to relevance.

When Jim Bunning, later McConnell’s colleague in the Senate, ran for Republican leader in the state Senate, he won on a 5-4 vote. The other 29 state senators were Democrats. As late as 1992, four of Kentucky’s six U.S. House members were Democrats. And after Republican Louie Nunn left office, every governor between 1971 and 2003 was a Democrat.

“We had to beg people to run for governor. Literally, we had to recruit people to run for governor,” McConnell said.

But as the state began to change, one person was present at virtually every turning point: Mitch McConnell.

“Sen. McConnell certainly is a fierce competitor, and he’s very good at the electoral process,” said Dale Emmons, a longtime Kentucky Democratic strategist. “He’s a master of the game, and that’s from the other side of the aisle.”

In 1994, after the death of Democratic Rep. William Natcher, McConnell dispatched his top political aide, Terry Carmack, to run Republican Ron Lewis’s special election campaign.

McConnell badgered Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), then the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, as well as then-Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour, to invest in the race.

They did, and Lewis became the first Republican to win a U.S. House seat in western Kentucky — the first hint that a Republican wave was building across the country.

Five years later on a Saturday morning in his own living room, McConnell finalized a deal that delivered Democratic state Sens. Don Seum and Bob Leeper to the Republican Party.

Their switch handed control of the state Senate to Republicans for the first time since Reconstruction; the GOP hasn’t given up the Senate since.

In most states, a party infrastructure is cultivated and maintained by a governor who has to work with state legislators on a daily basis. But Kentucky is unique: It elects state legislators in even-numbered years and the governor in an odd-numbered year. With no governor or gubernatorial nominee presiding over the state Republican Party, the task fell to McConnell, who tackled it with glee.

After the 2002 elections, McConnell wrote a single check that wiped out the state party’s entire debt. Today, the Kentucky Republican Party’s headquarters is known as the Mitch McConnell Building.

And in 2016, just two years after Republican Matt Bevin challenged McConnell in a primary, an outside group with close ties to McConnell ran advertisements backing now-Gov. Bevin’s agenda.

This year, McConnell and Bevin are working together to win back the state House, hoping to take advantage of dramatically changed political geography in the state.

Since the Civil War, Democrats have maintained control of eastern Kentucky’s coal country. Even in 2002, when McConnell won reelection by a nearly 30-point margin, his Democratic opponent won majorities in seven coal-heavy counties. In 2014, McConnell won all but two of those counties, and Bevin won them in 2015.

The Republican resurgence in Kentucky has been bookended, in a fashion, by three unpopular Democrats: Bill Clinton, whose dismal approval ratings helped Republicans take back the House and Senate in 1994; Gov. Paul Patton, who spurred the Democratic exodus from the state Senate in 1999; and President Obama, who has presided over a period of decline in those coal-heavy counties.

“Bill Clinton turned western Kentucky red, and Barack Obama turned eastern Kentucky red,” said Billy Piper, a Washington lobbyist and McConnell’s longtime chief of staff.

Emmons attributed the political shift in eastern Kentucky to upheaval in the energy industry, and particularly to the decline in coal jobs that had been a staple of generations of middle-class miners.

“There’s been a sea change in terms of how the current administration is now viewed in Kentucky,” Emmons said. “The coal industry and the energy business has really changed. It’s an anti-Obama vote.”

McConnell, too, credited Obama with helping Kentucky Republicans make inroads in the state’s east.

“President Obama has certainly helped, in the last few years, accelerate the process in an area of the state where it was hardest to compete,” McConnell said. Now, coal country “may be where we have the best pickup opportunities in finally flipping the House.”

This year, McConnell and national Republicans are struggling to keep control of their narrow majority in the U.S. Senate. But back home, McConnell believes his party is within arm’s reach of conquering the last remaining hurdle to total Republican control in Kentucky.

Thirty years ago, McConnell had scant company on stage at Fancy Farm. Next year, his side will be overflowing with a governor, a fellow senator, five members of Congress, and maybe the next Speaker of the state House.

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